Charcoal might seem like a strange ingredient to clean your face with, but it’s actually a very effective cleanser; the finely ground powder is wonderfully absorbent and exfoliating and helps to leave skin smooth and matte.
Jim Bettle owns The Dorset Charcoal Company and makes charcoal the old fashioned way, on kilns tucked away in the depths of the remote Dorset woodland.
The work Jim does is incredibly valuable. The charcoal he makes doesn’t come from his own trees; instead his huge kilns are made to be portable and Jim is called in when a woodland needs thinning. He is part of an age-old tradition that is in danger of dying off, were it not for a handful of dedicated people like him.
Helping woodlands thrive and survive
Woodland, like most land, needs management if it is not to go completely overgrown. Woods sometimes have to be thinned so that the biggest trees can grow tall and straight to produce the best wood when they are felled and to give younger trees a chance to take off. Opening up a woodland to let a bit more light in also has a huge effect on the plants and flowers that grow beneath the tree canopy. More plants means more insects, and more insects brings more birds and animals. This woodland biodiversity is vital to our ecosystem and to the survival of species, so the charcoal Jim produces keeps our countryside beautiful as well as helping local wildlife.
So if you should see a bag of The Dorset Charcoal Company charcoal in your local garden centre, you can buy it knowing that you're helping to keep our woodlands alive and thriving.
The art of making charcoal
There is a great deal of skill and art in producing a batch of charcoal. It is a process that is done by eye and experience. Charcoal is basically pre-burned hardwood. The idea is to drive out as much moisture from the wood, so that all that is left is a dry fuel that is quick to light and hot to burn.
If the charcoal maker burns the wood in the kiln too much, there is nothing left to use and instead of charcoal chunks, all that is left is ash. Don’t burn it enough and the water within the wood is not driven out and the resultant charcoal will not light easily or burn hot. Charcoal kilns are large steel vessels which are set up to burn batches of wood whilst controlling the amount of air available for the burn.
The kiln is carefully loaded, the wood set alight and a blaze is allowed to develop, then at the exact right moment the lid is put on and secured tight. Air flow is controlled through vents beneath the kiln, using the colour and quantity of smoke given off as a guide. A slow, smokey burn is maintained for approximately 16 hours. If the charcoal burner is skilled, what's left in the kiln after that time are chunks of wood that are now optimised for the next user.
Why we support UK produced charcoal
Most of the charcoal purchased in the UK is produced abroad – sadly sometimes clear cut from hardwood forests that should be better protected. UK charcoal not only has less air miles, it is sourced from managed woods.
Not just for BBQs
The bulk of charcoal purchased in the UK, about 60,000 tonnes, is used on home BBQs. There are however many other uses. It is still used in many technical and industrial applications for filters to remove organic compounds from water and air.
Charcoal has also been used for centuries for pharmaceutical purposes, for the treatment of digestive disorders and poisoning. It is still used today in many medical applications.
Charcoal, mostly willow, is also used by artists for its wonderful smudgy effects.
What's more, Lush has revived the old tradition of black soap, in the form of our clarifying facial soap Charcoal. Once Dorset Charcoal perfected the exact right size of grain for us, we started using it in more of our products, like Plaque Sabbath; a toothpaste jelly which teams charcoal with liquorice and clove, and thanks to its absorbent and gently exfoliating qualities we were able to craft the fresh face mask Prince of Darkness. With an ingredient this good, we can't help invent products to make good use of it - and to give us an excuse to keep visiting Jim in some of the most beautiful woodlands in Dorset.